It is Mental Health Awareness month here in the US and Mental Health Awareness week back home in the UK. Both of these events help to fight stigma, inspire others and educate people about mental illness. They both encourage people to come forward and share their experiences. Now, more than ever, with the Coronavirus pandemic in full flow, people are suffering with stress, anxiety and depression. Whilst what I’m going to talk about in this post was caused by my job, some of what helped me may also help you, if the current situation is affecting you in any way.

Recruitment is tough, both internal where I work, and on agency side. I’m lucky enough to work for Wellframe, which is fantastic company, where I am part of  a great team where I get the support and help that I need. I haven’t always been part of a team though, in fact the majority of my internal roles I have been the sole person responsible for recruitment. This can be a lonely place, often without  a proper HR function in place.  The buck stops with you and sometimes there is little or no support from the business.

In the spirit of Mental Health Awareness week/month, and taking advantage of the additional day off of work that Wellframe have provided all of their employees to show their appreciation, I took some time to look back and reflect on the time that I ended up here:

This is the story of how I got here.

Let’s go back two years. 

I had started a new role as the sole recruiter at a software company who had been struggling to hire developers and technical staff. My initial remit was to put a recruitment strategy in place for them and to drive hiring in those areas.

Working with a small budget, I went about putting the strategy in place. I needed to fix the challenge of hiring people for the hard to fill roles that I had inherited, and also put a strategy in place to help make sure that the company didn’t find themselves in that position again. This translated into long days of sourcing, using the few tools that I managed to get signed off from the powers that be, and long evenings at networking events and meet-ups, building relationships, many which grew to be strong partnerships.

Life was good. The hard work was paying off, targets were being hit, roles were being filled and within eighteen months I had responsibility for recruitment across the whole company.

And that’s when the turnover started.

People had begun to become disillusioned with what was happening at the company. Expectations from leadership were high and the business wasn’t performing as well as it had hoped. Internally, people were becoming fed up with the lack of direction and fear of trying a different approach to things. There was a feeling that the company wasn’t delivering what it had promised, or maybe didn’t actually have the drive to match peoples ambitions.

People started to leave. Over that twelve month period, twenty people left.  That was twenty people that had to be replaced, on top of the already ambitious hiring plans that were in place. To put things in perspective, the company was at around 60 – 65 people at the time that people started to move on, so it was a fair chuck of the company.

And that’s where my journey to hospital began.

After two years of hard work I was already beginning to feel a little burnt out. Now I was in a situation where there was pressure to backfill the people who were leaving straight away. This was to be done with no additional budget and no additional support.

Looking back, I can see where things started to go badly for me. I started waking up in the middle of the night, thinking about work. This would happen every night, weirdly at 3.34am nearly every time!
My brain would be ticking, thinking about whatever the current challenge I was facing. There would be no going back to sleep, so I would often be up and working from 5am and would head into the office earlier and earlier. I would get home at the usual time (somewhere between 7pm – 8pm), eat and then go to bed, exhausted, only to wake up at 3.34am the next day to repeat the cycle.

Burn out + exhaustion = not good.

After a few weeks I started to notice something different happening. On my way to the office I would feel like I was overheating and be absolutely exhausted by the time I got to my desk. At the time I owned a Fitbit watch. Among the stats I could see on my wrist was my heart rate. During the 5 minute walk from the bus stop to the office, my heart rate would rocket up to 130-140bpm and would remain around 120bpm during the day, only to drop again on my way home.

Then things started to get scary. 

I started to feel ill at home, over the weekends, when I was trying to relax. I would have trouble breathing and my body would start to shake and twitch uncontrollably, lasting between 30 – 60 minutes. This was a really strange sensation and would completely wipe me out for the rest of the day.

I started to have problems during the times that I wasn’t in the office. At times on my way to the office, or out getting lunch, or on the way home, I would get a crushing feeling in my chest, getting tighter and tighter and making breathing harder and harder.

Finally, the week I ended up in casualty, something new started happening, on top of everything above. I would be going about my day as normal when I would start to overheat. Once this kicked in, I could feel my heart rate rise and my concentration start to zone out. Breathing would be hard and it would feel like I was about to faint. All I could do was to get somewhere that I was on my own, and work on getting my breathing under control. Each attack would last about 30 minutes, and in the week leading up to me getting some help, happened three times.

On the third occasion, I made an excuse to leave the office early and  headed to the walk in clinic in town. I explained to the receptionist what had just happened and was sitting in front of a doctor within minutes, having skipped the queue. Ten minutes later, I was in a taxi, on my way to the hospital to get an irregular heartbeat investigated.

Which takes us back to the photo at the start of this post. The good news is, there are no problems with my heart. The diagnosis was stress and anxiety caused by my job.

Fast forward a few years and I am in a completely different place both literally (I moved to the America from the UK towards the end of 2018) and professionally. Frankly, this period sucked, but it was also a learning experience for me.

Recruitment can be a lonely place

In-house recruitment can be a lonely place if you are in the wrong environment. I was still pretty green at this stage and thought that this was just how it was. Looking back, I can see how it was toxic for me.

The recruitment function was just me. The business were not interested in working with me to hire people. I was there to fix the problem they had, and if it wasn’t working then it was because of me. Instead of collaborating together to make things work, it’s just easier to shout “Where are my candidates”.

Being successful with a tiny budget also worked against me. The view from within was that if I could fill roles with minimum spend, why would they need to invest more into a recruitment budget.

This puts you in a position of working harder and working longer hours. This is never going to be a good thing, and if you find yourself falling into this routine then it’s time to take a step back to re-evaluate your role.

What did this experience teach me?

Avoid burn out
This sounds straight forward and easy, but it’s actually one of the hardest things to spot and deal with. 

Work long hours, day after day.
Work weekends

Use your free time on you. Forget about work (or, at least, don’t do work) and concentrate on the things that you love and make you happy.
Take breaks during the day. Get away from your desk, even if it’s walking around the block for five minutes.
Use your holiday allowance. It’s there for a reason!

When you are caught up in it, this is easier said than done – but all of these things really do help.

What I learned

Turn off your fitness tracker
Look, I love my Apple Watch, and before that my Fitbit. They are a fantastic way to track your fitness and motivate you to keep on track. Unfortunately for me, having my heartbeat on screen made things worse, watching your heart rate shoot upwards in real time added to the stress and anxiety that I was already feeling. If you can turn off or hide your heart monitor, then do it.

Get away from your desk
You shouldn’t be at your desk all day. Take breaks, lots of breaks. Get away from your desk, go for a walk around the block

Exercise and get fresh air
I get it –  if you’re working long hours and not sleeping, then you probably don’t want to hit the gym for a full workout. But it is good to get out and get some time for yourself, even if it’s just a 20 to 30 minute walk around the neighbourhood. Put some music or a podcast on and spend some time outside. It will help you unwind

Mindfulness meditation
This was a big one for me. I used the headspace app but there are other options out there. Not only does this help you to relax, and to get 10 to 15 minutes away from the real world, it also helps you to identify when stress and anxiety attacks are starting. It helps you isolate it by concentrating on that area of your body where you feel the most discomfort. And most importantly, it helps you manage the situation and recognize that it’s happened before and you got through it by keeping calm and concentrating on your breathing.

Just breathe!
As mentioned above, it is very easy to panic if things are getting on top of you. taking some time away and taking deep breaths really helps you to focus and keep calm.

Cut out the caffeine
If you are in a situation situation similar to me, where heart rate rockets at the drop of a hat, then I would strongly recommend cutting out caffeine. It was a catch 22 situation for me. I would drink coffee or Red Bull to help counteract the lack of sleep. This completely worked against me and I made the situation worse. I ended up giving up caffeine for a couple of years after this experience.

Check your benefits
Take full advantage of the benefits that your company offer. Check to see if you have access through work to support, medical assistance and wellbeing initiatives (gym memberships, massages etc).

Talk about it
This is something I wish I had done more of. Don’t bottle everything up. Just talk to someone, a loved one, a friend, a colleague, a stranger on the internet, it doesn’t matter who you talk to. Just getting things off your chest and sharing it with someone will help.

Get medical advice. 
If you don’t feel right talk to a medical professional straight away.  If you feel stressed, go to the doctor. If you feel sick, go to the doctor. They will help you!

As I said at the start of this post, Recruitment is tough. If you find yourself in a situation where you don’t have a team around you, or people in the business to talk to, please remember that you aren’t alone. Connect with other recruiters who are in similar roles and get involved in communities like DBR where you can ask questions and be supported by thousands of other in-house recruiters who have experienced similar environments.

When I look back at that version of me that, who was sitting on a hospital bed, wired up to an ECG machine, I thought I was failing, with nowhere to go and no way of fixing things.

Asking for help was the start of a new journey for me.